Author

YORK HARBOR – Get to know acclaimed writer Colin Sargent during the next installment of the York Art Association’s new series, which features some of the best authors from the Seacoast region and its surrounding communities.

On Nov. 13, Sargent, who is a playwright and poet, and is also the publisher of Portland Magazine, will read from his first novel, “Museum of Human Beings,” the story of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the child of Sacagawea.

During a recent interview, Sargent spoke of his inspiration for this work of fiction that is steeped in historical fact.

“All the images of Lewis and Clark’s famous Shoshone guide, from elementary history books to the coin in currency today, are titled ‘Sacagawea.’ But there are two human beings in those pictures… Sacagawea is always portrayed with her ‘papoose,’ who appears to be a fashion accessory as central to her legend as a flag is to Betsy Ross… I found myself wondering, who is that boy? Whatever happened to him?”

From there, Sargent explained that he began hunting through archive entries that mention Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who lived from 1805 to 1866.

As a result of that search, Sargent said, “a picture of a man struggling to emerge from the shadow of his celebrity mom began to take shape, and I felt a real connection – Baptiste is a touchstone for so many of us who are searching for our own place in the world.”

Sargent’s next task was to work the biographical and historical information he gathered into a work of fiction. The facts known about Baptiste include his education in St. Louis as the adopted son of William Clark after his mother’s death, followed by his appearance in Duke Paul of Wurttemberg’s journal when he was a teenager, Sargent explained.

“Facts gather value when connected together by a narrative. A strictly literal viewer doesn’t have the eyes to see The Big Dipper, just dissociated stars,” Sargent said. “I had to understand, for example, how Baptiste’s adopted father, the explorer William Clark, was so indifferent to Baptiste’s fortunes that he palmed him off on a German nobleman with Duke Paul’s reputation as a sexual tourist. Then, I wanted to understand why the boy agreed to go.”

Describing his love of reading itself as the “out-of-body” experience that happens when immersed in a compelling story, Sargent said he strove to write as a “reader,” asking questions throughout the writing process to stimulate his own imagination as though he, too, were experiencing the places and times of his characters.

“I spent so much time trying to feel things like Baptiste Charbonneau so I could share them with readers that there were a couple of times while commuting to work in Portland when I caught myself looking into the passenger seat of my car expecting to see him riding beside me,” he said.

Sargent said elements of Baptiste’s history troubled him, while others were inspirational.

“Sacagawea was maybe the first true celebrated working mother, a New World Madonna. When I found out her son was paraded through the capitals of Europe by a German prince as a half-gentleman, half-animal, I was hurt for him, but then I came to admire Baptiste as a person who was able to survive and find his dignity, even through a youth of drug abuse, sexual negotiation and humiliation in a savage world,” he explained. “At court, Baptiste mastered at least seven languages, performed as an accomplished musician and acquired a keen sense of irony, but it was in the New World he learned to appreciate that all experiences, horrific or joyous, make a whole person. Baptiste is a contemporary, complex character who led his own riveting life of thrills, adventures, exquisite loss and, finally, love. He wasn’t just a witness to the Voyage of Discovery. Straddling several cultures at once and adapting the best of each to find meaning in his life, Baptiste was an agent of the coming of age of America.”

Sargent said his inspiration for writing this book came in part from his realization as a magazine publisher that “a person’s life is not defined by a photo-op… in spite of the fact that a 24-hour barrage of headline news can make it seem that way. …. I wanted to liberate Baptiste from reductive history and photo-ops.”

And when it comes to sharing his novel locally, Sargent said he is especially looking forward to the Nov. 13 event.

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